Rock 'n' roll, originating in the late '50s, is the youngest of the trio, and sex, invented in 1647 by Dutch physiologist Hans Van Zechs, the oldest, have had the highest profiles in the entertainment industry. But drugs, the middle child, have nevertheless made their mark. But unlike sex and rock 'n' roll, which gradually became prominent, if not downright respectable, components in mainstream movies, drug films have remained on the margins, constituting a veritable genre unto themselves.
Sensationalist, semi-documentary anti-drug films also had the allure of forbidden fruit. The Production Code that effectively regulated mainstream movie production well into the 1950s kept narcotics largely out of legit Hollywood productions, a prohibition that opened the door for poverty-row producers cranking out low-budget, propagandistic fantasies dressed up as fables warning the public of the dangers of drug abuse.
Reefer Madness (1936), playing this week at Georgia State University's cinéfest, is the enduring classic in that vein. Framed as a warning to parents about the "Assassin of Youth," this schlock masterpiece portrays marijuana as devastatingly addictive and the shortest route to heroin, pre-marital sex and murder. Its actual effectiveness in keeping kids off drugs is unknown, but Madness has certainly entertained thousands with its hard-hitting depictions of 30-year-old teenagers puffing like chimneys and dervishing like speed freaks.
The funniest thing about Reefer Madness was how many members of the straight community readily continued to mistake it for an anti-drug tract. Equally exploitative follow-up features Cocaine Madness and Sex Madness (a teen sex romp posing as a warning about the dangers of VD) also circulated for years among misguided PTA groups and youth camps.
Ironically, even in the late '60s, when drugs enjoyed a brief turn on the pop-culture center stage, most controlled-substance flicks continued to follow essentially the same formula. In the movies, using drugs made people act wild, get busy and commit crimes. Using drugs also gave filmmakers an excuse to break other kinds of rules -- leading to a brief Golden Age of highly experimental "trip" sequences chock full of dizzying camera moves, slippery focus and jump cuts. And even the most naked of the '60s drugsploitation pics still tried to dodge criticism by flying under the false flag of documentary and diatribe. When it comes to drugs in movies, filmmakers tried to have their brownie and eat it too, simultaneously celebrating and condemning the substances that bought them an audience, one way or another. Remember, shortly after they "freak out," Easy Rider's motor-cycling duo gets blown away by rednecks.
Grass, cinéfest's follow-up feature, is a welcome change after five decades of drug double-speak. Directed by veteran documentarian Ron Mann (Comic Book Confidential, Twist) this film attempts to capture the complex cultural history of the Devil Weed that led the hapless protagonists of so many educational one-reelers so far astray. Steering conspicuously clear of taking a stand on the veracity of the various claims made by either side of the current legalization movement, Mann focuses his film on the political and social costs and agendas that have shaped our attitudes and policies toward the "Assassin of Youth," from the role regulation played in justifying anti-Mexican attitudes in the American Southwest at the turn of the last century to the conflation of marijuana with communism during the Cold War.
The film does have some perhaps needlessly sanctimonious moments, but Mann has managed to create a virtual museum of narco-Americana. Combining excerpts from exploitation pics and hygiene films, newspapers and newsreels, and herbally inspired musical selections from the Jazz Age to the Aquarian Age, Grass reveals the hysteria and hypocrisy that has, for good or ill, marked our war on drugs since its beginning.
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